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If you're looking for the South East Michigan Bluegrass Music Association (A fine group of Bluegrass fans in South East Michigan) you can find them at http://smbluegrass.org/

Monday, August 14, 2017

People, Places and Music--Free the Music Fest 2017

The Festival grounds at Lakenenland
What do you get when you assemble a score of musical acts to volunteer their talents under the sun and stars in a somewhat magical, semi-mythical setting free of the clutter and chaos of the typical bar/music scene?  You get Free the Music Fest 2017 at Lakenenland in Michigan's scenic Upper Penninsula!  Festival Organizer and quintessential Marquette street musician Cody Lakenen--wiser and harder working that his age would suggest--had a dream of resurrecting his family's "music party" and making it a proper festival and he knocked it out of the park.  I dare say this, while possibly the smallest, was definitely one of the best festivals I attended this summer *(if not the VERY best).  It had everything you expect (killer lineup, beautiful place to camp, food vendors, arts and crafts...) along with a professional stage, incredible sound system and hundreds of the most friendly, welcoming and enthusiastic people I've met. All the ingredients for a magical weekend of music.

Just one of the magical creatures you will find in the woods
Critical to the enchantment were the grounds themselves.   Lakenenland is a free-to-the-public sculpture park and the dream child of Cody's uncle, Tom Lakenen.  Like many welders, Tom took up sculpture in an effort to reuse/purpose the iron scraps he ran into.  Placing his large-scale, often whimsical sculptures along paths carved though his arboreally forested property just off the shore of Lake Superior, Tom has created a year-round attraction accessible by foot, bike or car during the summer, and snow mobile or skis during the winter.  Tom's hospitality is legendary, offering visitors a place to sit out of the weather, a warm fire or cup of hot coffee and always a listening ear.   You will find fantasy creatures, an idealized mining company, tributes to the men and women who work the UP's iron and maybe a political commentary or two.  There is something new to see around every corner, and I find myself discovering something new every time I visit.

The Cody Lakenen Band
This is not the only time you will hear music on the grounds at Lakenenland.  The Lakenens are a musical family so I am certain there is a plethora of music every time their family gathers (and it's a LARGE family, so I'm sure that's often).  I know there is at least one semi-regular folk jam that convenes on the grounds, and I've heard stories of mid-winter jaunts to the park for midnight jams in the snow.   Cody made a name for himself busking in the streets of Marquette as the bars let out to make a few bucks (I'm sure that is how he paid for many of the earlier festivals).  He is a tremendous blues/slide guitar player and talented blue-collar songwriter.  His ode to his brother in Ironworker's Local 8, I'm an Iron Workin' Man is the sort of song that gets in your head and rattles around for days.  For years, Cody has been entertaining the crew after hours at the Marquette Area Blues Fest with his original songs performed on his National Guitar.  While his travels around the country for work make it difficult to put down musical roots, Cody premiered The Cody Lakenen Band at the festival, with the addition of drummer Brandon Snyder and Bassist Becca Roo.  For a young, new band, their set was clean, tight and had great drive, groove and energy.  I'd go see them play any time!

Burning it up with Not Quite Canada
The Festival kicked off with a short list of Friday night acts playing under an unseasonably cold, misty sky.   Thankfully, a supply of firewood kept the fires roaring and the crowds in good spirits.  Longtime local singer/songwiter Mike Waite kicked it off with a groovy band of friends.  Their set was high energy, entertaining, and featured some killer upright bass licks and mind-blowing harmony singing.  Folk-rockers The Daydreamers  followed and kept the energy high with their mostly original set of foot tapping music.  Eclectic brass party band, Who Dat Brass followed with their quirky, yet completely mesmerizing mix of jazz, funk and rock.  This is the third or fourth time I've seen them and they just keep getting better.  The evening wrapped up to roaring bonfires and the jam-band sounds of local band Not Quite Canada.   I've mentioned before that jam bands are DEFINITELY not my thing, but somehow I really like these guys.  After a glitch sidelined the main PA system, the band kicked off with a couple groovy instrumentals, and then--aided by a patched together second stage PA work-around--entertained the crowd with a mixed bag of jam-band covers done their way.   It was their original tune Smokin' in the Sauna that impressed me the most.  Great funk/reggae groove and a killer bass line got the whole crowd dancing.

Who Dat Brass on Haley's Stage
Cody must have done something to please the weather gods, as the next day dawned with bluebird skies, calm winds, sunshine and mid-70s temperatures.  The perfect day to be alive and listening to live, local music in the Upper Penninsula.  The day featured a baker's dozen or so of mostly local acts alternating between the  main stage, and the "Haley Memorial" stage (constructed from the front half of a commercial fishing boat).  With the PA back in tip-top shape, the day kicked off with a couple local artists in "open mic" format.  The sound was great, the music fine, and the fellowship first rate. Singer/Songwriters Allen Dupras and Robin Leitch ("Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown) entertained the crowd with great vocals and guitar picking while Zach Lancaster and Tyler Dettloff both turned in great sets of old-time and blues numbers.  Regular Lakenenland jam session attendees Dr. J and the Pickers kept things going with a ton of catchy cover tunes as the headliners got ready to go.  Detroit Ted combined some storytelling with picking (dobro, guitar and banjo!) and really connected with the crowd.  Two of my favorite acts of the day both featured local manolinist Sam Graves.  Lake of Shadows played a bunch of their original heartbreak songs.   Almost contemporay/pop in nature I found their songs compelling, the mix of acoustic instruments, percussion, glockenspiel and harmony vocals to be refreshing and ultimately listenable.   Bedrooms & Basements is Sam's duo project with guitarist Taylor Martin.  They covered a lot of instantly recognizable songs (including a pair of memorable Fleetwood Mac tunes) that are hauntingly unique in their interpretation.

Lumi gettin' it done at Free the Music Fest 2017
The final three bands on the main stage set the standard for outdoor, live, electric music for the summer.   The Derrell Syria project led off with  their unique brand of Yooper Infused Reggae (yeah--it's a thing).  Derrell is one of the best jazz/soul/rock guitar players I've seen, and anchored by a killer rhythm section featuring his son Ethan, put on one incredibly entertaining set that had most of the crowd in front of the stage swaying along to I'm a UP Boy.  Derrel's bassist, Cliff, is one of the more unique, percussive musicians you will find and adds a high-voltage energy and drive to their music.   Ethan's other band, Lumi followed.  A funk-fueled jam-band with a world rhythm component, they bring unbridled enthusiasm to life on stage.  It is no wonder that they have a diverse, eclectic and broad fan base that follows them everywhere they paly.  This was a very entertaining set from start to finish (Finnish?).

The Organgrinders, the crowd and the stars.  Magic.
The night's headliners were The Organgrinders who invited the crowed to "party with the monkey" as they kicked off a 90+ minute set of hard-driving blues in front of a roaring bonfire (so hot that the band felt it from stage and even cautioned the crowd not to throw any more wood the fire...).  The band has a huge local following and it was apparent that from the many booming, fog-horn emulating cries of "TEAM DRINK" that this was not the first time the crowd had seen this blues-fueled party band play.   The band makes it's living feeding off the crowd, and this night provided them with a rocket fueled boost of energy that sent had them grinning ear to ear as they played one song after another, each taking the crowd to greater heights.  Lead man Brian "Looper" Lucas' voice and harp filled the air while guitarist Sven Gonstead tore into one lead lick after another.  Rhythm partners Eric and Tim played off each other keeping a funky backbeat in time to the stomping of the crowd.  Cody had mentioned that his dream had always been to have the Organgrinders headline his festival, so it was fitting that things came full circle with the band inviting him on stage to play slide guitar on a hard-driving blues number.  After months of planning and hard work (not to mention three days of putting out fires and attending to one crisis after another) it was great to see him lose himself in the music, the pure joy of his playing eclipsed only by the smile on his face.   Music has the power to transform, and on this night, the magic was palpable--visible on the faces of everyone in attendance.  Free the Music Fest is more than a free party in the woods.  It's magic....

Links to a LOT more pics on the Semibluegrass facebook page here.  Please tag people in the album (it's public) and feel free to share (with credit to www.semibluesgrass.com).  Like what you read?  Follow SeMiBluegrass on Facebook for more live, local music review and band profiles. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Friends, Fans and Family at the Milan Bluegrass Festival.

Chasin' Steel from Marquette Michigan
It's already been a long year of music festivals--Charlotte, Folk-In-The-Woods, Forestville, Marshall--with more yet to come.  Just got back from a bluegrass festival that holds a special place in my heart.  My motto has always been "the People, the Places, and the Music" and no one place captures the quintessential essence of that sentiment more than this annual gathering of friends, fans and families at the KC Campground for the 20th Milan Bluegrass Festival. This festival boasts all the big-name acts as well as plenty of local and regional bands covering the spectrum of bluegrass today.  This year even included a set from Country music legend Gene Watson.  But there is so much more that this festival has to offer than just the best in bluegrass music.

The Ol Hippie Camp in the Rustic Area
The site of the festival is the KC Campground.   This well maintained and professionally run operation boasts ample camping, plenty of shade, a swimming pond and play area for the kids and some delicious food options.  The "Snack Shack" can feed that burger-and-fry craving, the "Ice Cream Shack" does booming business keeping the crowd cooled off with delicious treats, and the staff in the main office serves up some killer renditions of soup beans and cornbread.  The non-profit organization T.H.A.N.K.S. also does a BBQ dinner each night available for a low, low price with all proceeds going to assist children in need.

The first class stage is comfortable for the performers and allow the crowd to see and hear everything (thanks in large part to sound man Jimmy Kittle who works tirelessly to tweak the sound to perfection).  Emcee, bluegrass legend Blake Williams, runs a tight ship, getting bands on and off stage promptly and keeping the crowd's energy at maximum with his wit and humor.  

Owner and Festival Promoter Mark Gaynier prides himself on a smooth running festival.  His employees are some of the hardest working (and happiest) you will find.  A small army of young workers keeps things rolling, the food hot and fresh, and the garbage picked up.  There were ample picnic tables and fire rings for all the campsites.  Ice was available at reasonable rates all weekend, and the camp store stocked not only a small selection of staple items, but those hard-to-find-but-essential items for camping--be it RV accessories, mosquito coils or sunscreen, they had what you needed (or would go find it!).  I have been recommending KC Campground to my friends for years.  It's a great place to take the family for a weekend or a vacation (even when there's not a bluegrass music festival).

The Becky Buller Band Rocking the Ear Trumpet Labs Mic
The Music at the Milan Bluegrass Festival is first rate as well.  Unlike past years, when the festival started with local bands on Thursday and built to the "A List" bands on Saturday, Mark mixes things up, offering a taste of something for everyone's taste each day.  This year, the festival kicked off with fiddle phenom Michael Cleveland and his award-winning band, Flamekeeper.  Despite the high temperatures and oppressive humidity, the band set a finger blurring, mind-blowing pace and whipped the crowd into a frenzy with  their hard-driving take on traditional bluegrass.  Summer Brooke and the Mountain Faith Band followed with a set of mixed contemporary songs and gospel influenced original material that was equally energetic and entertaining.  The ever-popular Nothin' Fancy brought their unique brand music and entertainment to keep thing going.   Fiddler-of the Year nominee Becky Buller (with Banjo-Player-Of-The-Year nominee Ned Luberecki) hit the stage next with the best "single mic" performance of the year (thanks in no small part to Ear Trumpet Labs).  Becky graciously did a live piece on the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show (streaming "live from the RV" on WorldWide Bluegrass).  As has become a tradition, there was discussion of the festival, upcoming gigs and pimento cheese.  Becky even judged the first-annual "Pimento Cheese Off To the Death", with host Jerry Eicher's traditional pimento cheese narrowly edging out the SeMiBluegrass entry to take the crown.  The evening was capped off with a high-energy set from crowd favorite The Lonesome River Band who helped celebrate 20 years of the festival with an inspired set of classic LRB Tunes.  Original band member Sammy Shelor was all over the stage and smiling ear-to-ear during the set with guitarist/vocalist Brandon Rickman not only singing and playing his heart out, but even managing one of his infamous on-the-fly string changes.

Jonah and Jake of Chasin Steel having a little fun
My very first exposure to Bluegrass music was through the band Chasin' Steel, who made the long drive from Marquette to kick off the second day of the festival with their edgy set of traditional and contemporary covers as well as hard-driving, high-energy originals.  They had the crowd up and dancing with several of their numbers.  Rising stars Breaking Grass followed and kept the energy high with their own brand of edgy, modern-yet-classic bluegrass.  Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers brought two sets of traditional bluegrass music polished to a high luster, followed by the amazing vocal harmonies an killer breaks of Flatt LonesomeRussell Moore and IIIrd Tyme out capped the evening, filling the trees of the campground with his lush, rich vocals and the ripping bluegrass sounds of the band.  The jams picked up in the campground soon after, with several of them stretching into the first peeks of daylight--another time-honored bluegrass tradition that is making a strong comeback at the Milan Bluegrass Festival.

Rhonda and Gene sharing a laugh on stage
Saturday brought the best weather, biggest crowds and biggest bands to the stage.  Kicking off the day was Volume Five and their lightning-fast instrumentals and thunderous vocal harmonies.  Family act the Trinity River Band came next.  After a year on the road, they returned even more polished and put on one heck of an entertaining show.   The Grascals followed with their new, sleeker lineup.  Personally, I like their new sound, and Kristen Scott Benson stands out now not for her banjo picking (with is stellar) but for her vocal contributions.  I hope she continues sing her heart out on stage! Rhonda Vincent brought the Martha White Express to Milan to cap off the first set with a set of crowd favorites.  As hard as it is to believe, the bands' second sets were even more powerful and entertaining than the first.  After a break to switch the stage from an acoustic to electric set-up, country music legend Gene Watson capped the evening with a full two-hour set of his classic country hits.

SEMBA Hall of Honor
Foremost, festivals are an essential part of my life due to the people I have grown to know through live, local music.    This festival is also home of the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association, dedicated to not only promoting, but preserving the bluegrass heritage in the area.  Each year they induct new members into their "Hall of Honor" at the festival. This year's inductees included the original owners of the campground, the original promoters and Bill and Pam Warren, who's tireless efforts keep the association running.  

Milan holds a special place in my heart for the community we have built there.  When you camp at the Milan Bluegrass Festival, you are not a friend, or a fan, you are FAMILY.  There is a spirit of mutual respect, sharing and tolerance that is so absent from modern life and so powerful in this setting, that this single weekend restores my spirit, faith in humanity, and re-energizes me for yet another year.  For the past three years, we have set up the "SeMiBluegrass Jam Tent" in the grassy, "rustic" camping area of the campground and invite all to drop by and pick a few.  We're easy to find, with the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show's teepee as a landmark to find us.  There are kids just learning to play standing side-by-side with veteran jammers.  Fiddlin' Dixie dropped by with a couple students who sang a few songs.  Chasin' Steel dropped in for a couple hours before heading back to Marquette.  Each year, those who jam come back, and those new to the jam promise to return.

Long time campers in the area, the White sisters--granddaughters of Hall-of-Fame 2017 inductee Bob White are fixtures at the campgroud jams.  This year, Jerry Eicher asked them to do a couple songs for his "Jam in the RV" session on the Ol Hippie Bluegrass show (video embedded below).  They chose to do three songs that magically captured the essence of Milan and why it holds a special place in my heart.  Not 100% sure of the song titles, but they performed the following:  Summers up in Milan is a reworded cover of a (Gillian Welch?) song that speaks to the memories of KC Campground and the Milan Bluegrass Festival in their youth and why this was so special to them.  They followed with a cover of Michigan and Again by the Accidentals--a song of what draws people to Michigan, and keeps a bit of their heart when they leave.  They closed with Summer Flowers, a melancholy song written by their father.  As his daughters sing it in perfect sister harmony, you can not help but feel the human connection that binds their family together though the music and memories that they shared.  It is a connection that all of us at the Milan Bluegrass Festival feel; and what keeps us coming back year after year.

The 2018 Milan Bluegrass Festival is scheduled for August 2-4, 2018.  Make a point of attending.  And come pick a song or two with us at SeMiBluegrass.  Many more photos from the event in this gallery and on www.facebook.com/SeMiBluegrass.    Please follow us here, and on facebook.  Please share freely and tag your friends.